U.S. policymakers seem to have given up on Japan, laments Michael Green, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The exasperation is premature, Green says, for by most yardsticks, Japan is more important to U.S. interests than is China. This is important as U.S. Republicans choose a presidential candidate and think more intensely about foreign policy.

“Who can take a country seriously when its June 25 elections featured almost no debate on how to revitalize a stagnant economy?” Green asks rhetorically in a paper released last week by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Who, he continues, can take Japan seriously “when the electorate returned to power one of the most unpopular coalition governments and prime ministers in postwar Japanese history? When the bureaucracy stubbornly refuses to reduce the access fees that NTT charges for Internet service, even though information technology is the only hope for Japan to achieve higher productivity to compensate for a rapidly aging society?

“The common wisdom in Washington is that Japan is in capable of ‘leadership.’

“All eyes turn instead to the problem of managing Asia’s new rising power — China.”

But the common wisdom is misguided, Green says.

The United States tends to define Japanese “leadership” as Tokyo doing what Washington wants without Washington having to tell Tokyo to do so. The prospects for that sort of “leadership” may not be very good.

However, Green says, the prospects of Japan becoming a more significant player in the international system are very high. “To understand why requires a view not from Washington, but from Tokyo,” he writes.

Green is the latest in a small group of U.S. specialists to come forward with the view that Japan is more important to U.S. interests in Asia than China. Another is Richard Armitage, an adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush.

“Our strategic partner is Japan,” Armitage told the Far Eastern Economic Review in May. “It hosts our military presence and allows us to project our strategy throughout Asia.”

Green’s thesis starts with the essential realization that whether or not Japan’s GDP reaches its potential growth rate of 1 percent to 2 percent in the decade ahead, Tokyo sits on considerable assets in the international arena.

Japan is the second-largest contributor to the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank — and just about every other multilateral institution that sustains the world order.

Second, Japan’s economic weight in Asia continues to be massive. Despite the “rise” of China, two-thirds of Asian GDP is Japanese, and Japan’s economy is seven times the size of China’s.

Third, Japan is increasingly moving toward acting as an independent strategic player in the region. “Polls show that support for the U.S.-Japan alliance is higher in both countries than it has been since 1986, but there is a growing consensus among Japanese that their nation must have more ownership of the alliance,” says Green.

This shift is occurring for several reasons: generational change; fatigue over apologizing for history; insecurity caused by economic stagnation; and the sense of danger thrust upon the Japanese consciousness by events like the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis and the 1998 launch of North Korea’s Taepodong missile.

From the U.S. perspective, as Green notes, “Japan is a good ally. It is not quite as strategically reliable as Great Britain, but it has rarely undermined U.S. foreign or security policy the way other middle powers like France or even Canada have.

“The United States should not squander its unique moment by letting hubris and disinterest push Japan in the wrong direction.”

Veteran diplomats know that working with Japan is mind-boggling, labor-intensive and extremely challenging. But U.S. strategic interests — not to mention global stability — leave no other choice.

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